Commonplace
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Man at computer

September 1, 2000

What happens to history in the hands of Hollywood? What happens to a presidency in the hands of a biographer? Does blending fact and fiction ever add up to truth? At Common-place (www.common-place.org), a new web journal launched today, you can find out what historians think of The Patriot, how George Washington's first biographer shaped his legacy, and how historical novelists work. Created to bridge the gap between what academic historians write and what the public wants to read, Common-place brings together historians and history buffs, high school teachers and archivists, collectors and college students, to explore and exchange ideas about American history. It promises to change how Americans think about their past.

An elegantly designed, sophisticated, and literary website, Common-place is a common place for all sorts of people to learn about pre-twentieth-century American life and culture--from architecture to literature, from politics to parlor manners. Its essays and reviews, along with its on-line discussion board, provide a forum for examining the story of America as it is told not only in history books and college classrooms but also in newspapers, museums, historical societies, popular culture, documentary and dramatic films and on television and radio. Because Common-place is committed to the principle that everyone deserves to learn from cutting-edge thinkers--and that those thinkers will themselves learn from being in contact with readers and writers of every stripe--subscription is free and available to anyone who uses the web.

Each issue of Common-place includes several Features, lively, well-crafted essays based on original scholarship, investigative reporting, or reflections on historical practice; Reviews of recent scholarly books, historical novels, dramatic and documentary films, and interpretive websites; Talk of the Past, commentary on stories about American history in the daily news; Ask the Author, in which prominent, award-winning authors answer probing questions about their work; The Common School, where schoolteachers tell of particularly inspiring or unsettling classroom experiences and seek feedback from readers; Object Lessons, a place where museum professionals and scholars tour new exhibits or ponder curatorial issues; and Tales from the Vault, in which archivists leaf through recent acquisitions or wrestle with archival problems. The site's most intriguing feature is something like early American town pump-sites and pubs, coffeehouses and tea-tables: The Republic of Letters capitalizes on the latest in web technology to create an easily accessible community of ideals and ideas where readers participate in ongoing conversations with contributors and with one another.

September's inaugural issue excerpts Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles' new book, Arming America (Knopf, 2000), in which he argues that, contrary to popular myth (and NRA rhetoric) early Americans owned precious few guns and cared about them even less. The first issue also includes University of Nevada literary historian Scott Casper's meditation comparing Edmund Morris's Dutch, his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, to early American biographer Parson Weems' Life of Washington. In its commitment to dialogue, September's Common-place presents a roundtable discussion of University of Colorado historian Fred Anderson's Crucible of War (Knopf, 1999), his radical new history of the Seven Years' War. In Ask the Author, National Book Award finalist and Yale historian John Demos asks Wesleyan University historian and novelist Richard Slotkin: "What can you do as a novelist that you can't as an historian - and vice versa?" University of Connecticut professors Richard and Irene Quenzler Brown share their tale of tracking down an 1805 case of incest in Tales from the Vault. In The Common School, Concord Academy high school teacher Peter Laipson writes about the challenges he has faced teaching the concept of "gender" to young teens. And University of Massachusetts historian Alice Nash takes readers on a tour of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Ledyard, Connecticut, for Common-place's column, Object Lessons. Finally, in Talk of the Past, Common-place editor and Bancroft Prize-winner Jill Lepore compares the recently-released Hollywood blockbuster The Patriot with the PBS/BBC documentary, The 1900 House.

Common-place was founded and is edited by Lepore (Boston University) and Jane Kamensky (Brandeis University), who oversee a thirty-three-member editorial board of academics, filmmakers, journalists, secondary school teachers, and museum professionals. Charter members include Gordon Wood (Brown University), Gary Nash (University of California, Los Angeles), Margaret Drain (PBS's The American Experience), Philip Morgan (William and Mary), Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (Blueberry Hill Productions), Laurel Ulrich (Harvard University), and Robert Archibald (Missouri Historical Society).

Common-place will be published quarterly, in September, January, April and June. Future issues will feature in-depth coverage of current approaches to American slavery, an investigation of the controversy over the 9,000-year-old remains of "Kennewick Man," and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and historian Molly McCarthy's expose of eBay and its impact on private and public collecting.

Common-place is funded by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute in New York. It receives additional support from the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, the John Nicholas Brown Center, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and the Organization of American Historians.

For more information about Common-place, please contact Editors Jill Lepore (jlepore@bu.edu) and Jane Kamensky (kamensky@brandeis.edu) or Publicity Director Catherine Corman (corman@fas.harvard.edu).

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